UCLA men's volleyball rolls as Fort Valley State makes HBCU history in NCAA tournament

One team boasts 20 national titles. The other is just three years old. The result was as expected.

Top-seeded UCLA cruised in a three-set win over No. 8 seed Fort Valley State, sweeping the Wildcats 25-14, 25-15, 25-15 in the first round of the NCAA men’s volleyball tournament on Tuesday at Long Beach State’s Walter Pyramid. The defending national champion Bruins will face fourth-seeded UC Irvine in the semifinals at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday. The Anteaters swept No. 5 Penn State 26-24, 25-16, 25-19 in the first round.

Senior Ethan Champlin led the Bruins with eight kills and four digs. Mountain Pacific Sports Federation player of the year Merrick McHenry and opposite Ido David combined for 14 kills on 20 swings as the Bruins (24-5) hit a sizzling .521 while holding the undersized Wildcats (17-9) to 17 kills, which matched their number of hitting errors in their first NCAA tournament appearance.

“It’s a heck of a way to be welcomed in, huh?” Fort Valley State coach Larry Wrather quipped. “Our boys fought as best we could in that match, the three sets that we played. UCLA is the returning national champs for a reason.”

The Bruins are attempting to win their first back-to-back national titles since 1995 and 1996 and continue a recent championship trend. The five national champions before UCLA — Hawaii, Long Beach State, Ohio State, Loyola Chicago and UC Irvine — all won two consecutive titles before passing the crown.

But after spending a whole season trying to discover a new identity, UCLA almost has forgotten its own coronation last year.

“It seems like such a distant memory in my mind,” coach John Speraw said. “I don’t really think about back-to-back. I think about now: what we can do now and this opportunity that’s here in front of us.”

The Bruins were happy to share the opportunity in the first round with Fort Valley State, the first HBCU to play in the NCAA tournament. The field expanded to eight teams this season to include an automatic bid for the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, which adopted men’s volleyball in 2019 with the support of USA Volleyball and the First Point Volleyball Foundation, an organization co-founded by Speraw.

“For me personally to be here and have this match is just incredible,” Speraw said before the match. “I’m proud of Larry Wrather and the work that they’ve done.”

Wrather, who was named conference coach of the year as the Wildcats went 10-0 in SIAC play, beamed with pride as his players walked off the bus in front of the Pyramid on Monday. Players took photos and videos of the arena as they walked in for their first practice and press conference. Athletic director Daphnie Johnson and president Paul Jones were among about a dozen people who welcomed the team.

“It’s not just about us representing our university, but for the HBCUs all around, for the people of color all around,” sophomore outside hitter Isaiah Fedd said before the tournament, “to understand what we can provide to this sport and to show that we are meant to be a top-tier team and to show that we can compete with everyone else.”

Fedd, the SIAC leader in kills per set with 3.45 who did not play in the season-opening match between the teams when UCLA swept the Wildcats in Pauley Pavilion, had one kill and two aces early in the second set to help Fort Valley State build a 10-8 lead. The Bruins had five service errors before going on a 17-5 run to close out the set.

“They made us earn every single point,” Speraw said. “I think it’s a credit to the leadership of Fort Valley, supporting Larry and Larry’s coaching abilities and the vision he has for what he wants to do with this program.”

Outside hitter Jaxon Hicks, the SIAC player of the year, had three kills on 17 attacks with four digs. Reheem Thomas led the Wildcats with six kills.

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